Charles Southwell was born in London, England, in 1814, the only child of Fanny Southwell and her husband, a workman at Broadwood's pianoforte factory, whose name is unknown. Charles had 32 siblings, children of his father's two previous marriages. He was an intelligent child who misbehaved at school, but acquired Latin, Greek and French and a lifelong love for reciting Shakespeare. After he left school his father found him a place at the piano factory, but Charles was an unsteady worker. He married young; the identity of his wife, as of his future two wives, is unknown. The marriage proved unhappy.
Early in his life Charles Southwell read Timothy Dwight's smugly Calvinist writings which shocked him into doubting Christianity. He plunged into anti-clerical, ultra-radical agitations, and opened a bookshop in London. He was never businesslike, however, and the shop foundered after two years. This failure coincided with his wife's death and Southwell, near penniless, joined the 'British Legion', which fought in support of the constitutionalists in Spain. After his return to London in 1837, destitute and fever-ridden, he supported himself by lecturing on priestcraft and biblical immoralities. He had stores of rambling anecdotes and extravagant invective, which he delivered in a melodramatic style. He spoke extempore and could perform non-stop for hours. By 1839 he had been recruited by the Owenites as a communitarian lecturer and in 1840 was called as a missionary to Birmingham, and thence to Bristol.
Southwell's beliefs made his appointment incongruous. He was an extreme individualist, who perceived society as atomised: each imperfect being was privately responsible for his or her morals in a competitive, unregulated world. It followed that Owenite socialism was impossible and the millennium improbable. Southwell chafed against his Owenite sponsors and their avoidance of theological disputation. In May 1841 he publicly ridiculed Owen himself, and afterwards resigned.
In late 1841 Southwell and a partner opened a bookshop in Bristol, and in November launched the weekly Oracle of Reason to propagate atheism. An article entitled 'The Jew Book', a knockabout onslaught on biblical depravities and inconsistencies, brought Southwell a year's imprisonment for blasphemy and a fine of £100. His martyrdom made him famous, and provoked the first rallying of the British secularist movement.
On his release from Bristol gaol Southwell resumed lecturing under Owenite auspices at various halls and theatres in London. He also went to Edinburgh in 1843 to fight the blasphemy prosecutions of two radical booksellers. He had abandoned the Oracle and his comrades and in 1843 started the milder but still anti-clerical and populist Investigator. This paper lasted less than a year. He also set up as a dancing and French master. In 1849 a mysterious second wife died and he was again in debt. Intending to emigrate to the United States, he travelled to Liverpool. Instead, he was adopted as a lecturer by the Manchester Owenites. In August 1849 he launched the anti-clerical Lancashire Beacon. Both the paper and his emigration plans languished, and in 1850 he returned to London. There, and briefly in Glasgow in 1852, he promoted a vague ethical agnosticism among former Owenites, but his efforts never prospered. The adherents he won by his swashbuckling charm he lost by his fecklessness.
In April 1855 Southwell sailed for Melbourne, Australia, on the British Trident. Within a month of his arrival on 17 July he was in the thick of local agitations. He supported the Allied cause in the Crimean war, giving 'orations for the people' on Mazzini and Italy, and Kossuth and Hungary, at the Protestant Hall, and acted as a spokesman for the campaign to 'unlock the lands' to yeoman settlers and limit the governor's powers. He put his name forward for the first Legislative Council election, advocating the People's Charter, private ownership of land and no state aid to religion. However, he withdrew when the Age revealed his past after his nomination speech. He also used his extensive knowledge of Shakespeare to play Shylock at short notice in a well-received performance, and gave Shakespearian recitals at Bendigo and other gold-diggings.
In January 1856 Southwell moved to Sydney, where he acted at the Victoria Theatre. He joined W. H. Foley's theatrical troupe, and sailed for Auckland, New Zealand, arriving on 29 January 1856. Southwell's theatrical career in New Zealand was short-lived. After a brief season at the newly built Theatre Royal he quarrelled with the company and left. By mid 1857 the troupe had disintegrated and Southwell leased the Theatre Royal, but his productions failed and he ran it instead as a ballroom.
Southwell turned again to lecturing and journalism. Between 1856 and 1858 he gave lectures for the Auckland Mechanics' Institute on topics such as Napoleon III, the war with Russia, phrenology, and secular education. On 11 December 1856 he launched the Auckland Examiner, a weekly muck-raking paper which lampooned rivals and corrupt local officials. John Williamson, the superintendent of Auckland and editor of the New-Zealander, was caricatured as 'Cheap John'; co-proprietor of the New-Zealander, W. C. Wilson, was 'Swipes'; and another rival was 'Sponge No. 2'. The paper also scarified Christian missions to the Maori, and their associated land deals, and advocated a universal, secular education system. In August 1857 Southwell stood unsuccessfully, despite winning the show of hands, for a vacancy on the Auckland Provincial Council. He stood again in October, but missed by 31 votes.
Assisted by a third wife, or companion, Southwell prospered for a time with his paper, which had gradually turned respectable. From September 1858 it was published twice weekly. His health was failing, however, and in July 1860 the Auckland Examiner collapsed. Southwell received a £200 testimonial from well-wishers, who enjoyed his iconoclasm in the stifling, money-grubbing atmosphere of Auckland. However, on 7 August 1860, a fortnight after the death of his only successful venture, he died of pulmonary tuberculosis, a disease he had refused to acknowledge. He appears to have left no children.
A report published in England after his death by his enemy and erstwhile comrade, George Jacob Holyoake, stating that Southwell had turned Christian, seems to have originated in a misunderstanding of some heavy Southwellian satire. Southwell was a mettlesome exhibitionist, possessed by a hatred of humbug and of the cruelty of the natural order. His unmasking of crookedness in priests and sacred texts, land deals and local dignitaries upset right-thinking people in Britain, Victoria and New Zealand. But Southwell exulted in the reactions his uncomfortable truths provoked.